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tMetal.com - December 2002
By Brett Van Putt

Interview with guitarist James Byrd
Guitarist James Byrd has a long career thus far and he is just now creating the best music of his career. Byrd originally began as a guitarist in Fifth Angel, but after recording their debut album he split and went on to record instrumental and vocal albums under a variety of names (Atlantis Rising, James Byrd, now Byrd). His latest is called Anthem, it's out now on Lion Music. Here is James with a candid and detailed interview.

How do you feel about Anthem?
That's a very broad question. Relieved, how's that. Whenever I finish and deliver an album, there is a great relief of the stress it created while making it. First I feel a bit sad like one of my children has left home, then I spend a lot of time second guessing my craftsmanship and worrying that I did as good a job as I could, then I get beyond it and wonder what the hell I'll do next. Somewhere between deciding that the album was finished, and wondering what to do next, I feel a sense of relief. Anthem was a really hard record to make, and it is a very sincere album. It is intentionally a bit darker and progressive than Flying Beyond the 9 was because after 9/11, I was not in the mood to write about fantasy, but to address realities, both external, and personal. In a sense, it's a calculated album; it's the first album I've done using the same line up, and intentionally utilized the same musical parameters on as a previous album. Over the years, I have made each and every album from a totally different approach than the previous album. I think hurt me in a way because people seem to need a degree of predictability from artists. I'm not saying it's the same album as the previous album, clearly it's entirely different in mood and writing. But I finally felt I found a voice in terms of the big picture of my music, and it was a voice which was very big, and without many limitations; that of using extensive symphonic production values. I don't make albums to make critics happy, I make them to express myself, and to hopefully connect with fans. If critics love an album I've done, so much the better. But no matter what one does, some people are not going to get it. With Anthem, I've decided to grow instead of change, because I've found a form which is very freeing from an artistic perspective. One critic who raved about my last album was disappointed that Anthem sounded similar. What are you going to do? It sounds similar because I've chosen to continue to develop as opposed to a change in direction. I like the album a lot and it's as though I've only just begun to utilize the medium I've chosen with orchestration.

What are you currently up to? Will you be recording again soon?
Holy cow, I just finished this one this summer. It takes me a year of thought and arranging to put together an album, so no, I wouldn't expect another one for many months. I do so much of the tracking on these albums myself, and when one is responsible for lyrics, composition, orchestration, arrangement, recording engineering, and production, mixing, and booklet and cover art, it's a bit of work.

You have released both instrumental and vocal discs, do you have a preference or will you continue to release both in the future?
I love to compose absolute music, but you know, there's just unfortunately not enough of a demand for a purely instrumental guitar album to sustain the actual expense of making the albums. I do not feel constrained anyway. It's not like someone's telling me what to play or when to play it.

How do you decide whether to release an album as Atlantis Rising or Byrd?
I decided just use the moniker Byrd for several reasons. First, I have embarked upon a musical direction which has a particularly identifiable type of content which is a bit different from my past works. Secondly, I wanted to begin the new millenium with something simple and reflective of a new beginning musically. Thirdly, being named James Byrd got pretty complex after James Byrd got dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in Texas. I had just had my first website built shortly before this happened and it really messed everyone up. I had people related to the other James Byrd signing my guestbook, and anyone trying to find my albums on the internet got thousands of search results about that horrible crime in news stories. I didn't want to change my name, but I did want to distance myself from something that negative and potentially confusing if there was a simple way to do it. Things have finally settled down in that, and it's not a problem like it was, but in a nutshell, it just made sense on every level. Besides, my friends have all called me just Byrd all these years anyway.

Looking back on the Shrapnel years, was Mike Varney a help to you?
I could say no and I could say yes. The bottom line I suppose could only be found through motive. When considering those, I think he helped himself, and would like to consider himself a benefactor to me. Yes, I would not have ever gained access to this business were it not for him. Not in that apart from lining his own pockets as cheaply as possible with regard to my interests, he could have done so much more and could have ended up with a degree of good-will from me which I'd be lying if I said I had. I consider him utterly nefarious and one of the mid-level industry's worst abusers of artist's rights. He's still able to make money, but that's because there's a never ending stream of passionate musicians who are there for the taking. Some day he'll answer to a higher one, but as for me, I'm glad he's no longer involved in my recordings, and that should say everything.

Yngwie Malmsteen has spoken highly of you in the past, is it a case of mutual admiration or are you friends?
Yngwie and I haven't talked in a very long time. We used to hang out until the wee hours of the morning by telephone before he had his son. Our friendship began with mutual admiration but became quite close for a long time. Sadly, I have had to conclude that he's angry with me as of the last two years. He' s a very outspoken person as everyone knows-, and in our friendship, he never hesitated to tell me what he thought about my own work, be it good or bad. When he finished War to End All Wars he asked me what I thought of the album. I didn't lie to him, it's just not my style, no matter how important someone is. I told him look mate, you're a brilliant guitarist, a brilliant musician, and the albums you've sent me since we met have always been very good andthe playing amazing. But this album just isn't right. The production is not good. I hate to have to say it because I know you, and I know you just put a lot of work into it, but as good as the actual performances are and they're great actually-, you seriously messed up in getting rid of Chris Tsangeritus. Well, you could have heard a fucking pin drop on he other end of the phone. I felt awful to have been put on the spot, but you know, he never felt constrained by friendship not to tell me he didn't like the production on my Crimes of Virtuosity album. He told me when I'd finished that that the production was truly horrible. And you know, although it wasn't horrible, after hearing him go on about it, I remixed the fucking thing because the points he'd made were in essence, correct. So for me, the situation of us not speaking now is sad because from my end, I never let his criticism of one of my albums embitter me to the point of not wanting to speak to him, but he may have when I was honest with him. I don't know if he'll ever read this interview, but if he does, I just want him to know that any time he wants to just give me a call and have a chat, I'm not angry about anything, and I hope now, that he's forgiven me for telling him what I thought, and still think, was the truth about that album. Hey, he stopped defending it after pretty much everyone else in the press said exactly the same thing. So there you have it, I feel bad that we've stopped talking. If he wants to change that, he should have his lovely wife email me his new phone number because I don't even have one for him any more. Hopefully he can get back up with his new album Attack, because as far as I'm concerned, it' a very big world and this kind of music has a limited audience. His doing well is generally good for everyone who plays serious rock, so I only wish him the best.

Describe yourself as a guitarist at this point in your career.
Not to have the focus of a guitarist. How much faster can one learn to play? How much more technical can one get with the guitar and have it mean anything? Who knows, but for me, my focus is on placing the technique I have in the service of the music, not the other way around. My playing in every regard now, is shaped by necessity within the contexts I chose. Yes, I'm actually still very concerned about technique on the guitar, but it's not so that I can play faster or necessarily more difficult passages, but so that what I play, is played exceedingly well. It's actually been that way for a long time with me. Technique as such means so much more than speed or complexity.

Your stint with Fifth Angel sounded like a turbulent time, why did your relationship with the band end?
There's a short answer and a long answer to this. While only the long answer really explains the gravity of the corruption in the situation that developed, I'm so damned tired of talking about it in every interview, that I hope you'll accept my apologies for the short answer here; money, agreements about money, and a desire for more of it than the agreements would have allowed on the second album, were the reason. Two members chose not to honor the investment I'd made, and not to honor the principles of total equality in the original partnership. Once success and a near million in potential advances from Epic certainly looked like the big-time to kids- had been seized so they thought-, basic greed and pettiness totally destroyed the band. There's a lot more to it, but really, it's about as much fun as talking about a bitter divorce over a decade later.

Were you ever a part of the recent reformation rumors?
This was such bullshit. There was never any discussion I know of by any band members to do a reunion, this was a total crock made up rather intentionally by someone on the internet. Were it to have been true, I have no interest anyway. Too many people out there really need to get a fucking life as far as I'm concerned. I have no problem with any one holding the album I made in high regard, don't get me wrong. It was truly an album which has stood the test of time, and a rather impressive piece of art in it's day. I just have no interest in re-living, or attempting to re-live the past. Sure, there's a whole slew of reunions going on, but I'd be lying if I didn't say here, to me most of them are pathetic, transparent, and hollow looking attempts either avert mid-life crises, or rake in the last few album sales. My entire philosophy as a musician is to neither contrive to capitalize on trends, nor to reside in the creations of the past, but to move ahead without denying either the past or the future, and to build rather than abandon.

Describe your writing style.
I'm not sure I really have fixed style if we're talking about the span of my works. Look at the vast differences in approach I've taken since 1983. My music is neither planned nor spontaneous really. It just comes into my mind, fully formed, fully produced. I then have to try to re-create something that's come to me this way. This is how it is for me.

How do you feel about your career thus far?
I have no regrets or doubts as to what I've actually accomplished over the years. I do wish I'd been paid better, and more honestly which would have been better- but I don't really think money is something one is going to worry too much about during their last breath. I'm doing what I think I'm supposed to be doing with my gifts, and although I could certainly pick apart some details, I feel pretty damned good that I've made eight albums over nearly twenty years against such odds of anyone ever really doing what they want to as a musician. I've taken some breaks between albums, sometimes because I wanted to, sometimes because that's how long it took to work out a deal, and maybe I wish that I'd been able to do more albums. All in all, I've had everything but a lot of money, and there are so many people with money who I'd never trade places with, I just count my blessings really.

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